Back to the Future’s VFX


Today is “Back to the Future Day;” October 21st, 2015. This is the day that Doc and Marty traveled to the future in Back to the Future 2. That film was a visual effects extravaganza, featuring incredible optical composites of future skylines and flying cars, matte paintings of ruined cities, detailed miniature and model setups, and incredibly complicated motion control shots that enabled actors to interact with themselves in old age makeup – all before the days of digital animation!

The original Back to the Future, on the other hand, despite being a classic sci-fi time-travel film, only has about a dozen visual effects shots. Its effects are basically limited to the lightning in the sky above the clock tower, the lightning bolts traveling along cables, and the sparks and comets that surround the DeLorean as it accelerates to 88 miles per hour to break the time barrier. All of those effects were managed by Industrial Light and Magic animator and supervisor Wes Takahashi, and then composited together by John Ellis’s team on ILM’s massive optical printers.

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Hillary Clinton’s Hilarious Email Caper

I hadn’t been planning to talk about the email scandal, but last night, during the Democratic presidential debate, Bernie Sanders indignantly declared that the American people have heard quite enough about the emails. Apparently, I disagree.

Hillary Laughing

As we all know, Hillary Clinton was the United States Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013. During her entire time in that distiguisehd office, she ran all of her official email communication through a personal email server kept in a closet in her private home. Her email address was “” rather than “”. She claims this was purely for convenience, but it also allowed her to avoid disclosing any of her communications to the State Department.

Now, the current administration’s Justice Department announced that it was legally OK for Clinton to own and use a private email server, just as it would be for any of us, but there are several layers of complexity here. The first issue regards potentially mishandling classified data, which can certainly be a crime. Then there’s a long list of regulations on how federal records must be maintained and recorded, violations of which are bad. And thirdly, there is a general obtuseness and shadiness with which Clinton discusses her communications which, well, is the typical general obtuseness and shadiness with which Clintons tend to communicate.

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A Bit About the RPG-7

Afghan Soldier firing RPG

Like the AK-47, the RPG-7 is a Soviet weapon that was developed shortly after WWII using lessons learned from direct interaction with German military theory, a weapon which rapidly became ubiquitous in modern war and has been widely used in most parts of the world for more than 50 years. If you’ve watched action movies or war news, you have certainly seen this weapon in use. If you’ve traveled in Africa or the Middle East, you’ve probably seen it in person.

RPG stands for Ruchnoy Protivotankovyy Granatomyot, which means “hand-held anti-tank grenade launcher.” In English we call it a Rocket Propelled Grenade, but the warhead is a little more complicated than your average grenade. It was built to defeat Cold War-era tank armor, and it uses a very focused shaped charge to penetrate up to 20 inches of hardened steel. You can see the powerful cutting jet that the explosive creates in this video:

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4 Reasons Not to Use Traditional Textbooks

Isaac has written another article for Live the Adventure Letter, this time talking about the weaknesses of relying on traditional textbooks in your homeschooling.  Both Isaac and I were homeschooled, and our parents used a smattering of different real books, not just prepackaged curriculum,  to customize our education to each of us.  Read his article, 4 Reasons Not to Use Traditional Textbooks, to find out more.

Christian Parenting in the Midst of Violent Media

TV Blood

How do we as Christians teach our children about sin, death and violence without traumatizing or desensitizing them to its effects?  Isaac wrote a two part series on this important topic, specifically addressing the violence that is so prevalent in most media today.  These are important topics for every parent to consider, and something that Isaac and I have been talking about quite a bit as we prepare for the birth of our son this fall. Click on the links below to read more.

Christian Parenting in the Midst of Violent Media part 1

Christian Parenting in the Midst of Violent Media part 2

How a Few Simple Inventions Changed the Written World

Printer operating a Gutenberg-style screw press

Isaac has recently been doing some writing for the Live the Adventure Letter, and they just published his article on Martin Luther and the Printing Press. Have a look at how world-changing inventions didn’t actually change the word until the right men came along with the right ideas. The story of paper, the printing press, and the Reformation is also a good reminder that everything, even simple mechanical inventions, arrive in God’s sovereignly-appointed time.  One of the reasons I love being married to Isaac is that I am always learning things from him: interesting history, cool technology, and real life theology, and this article is no exception.

In Remembrance of Howard Phillips

When I was a very small boy growing up in Washington DC, there were four heroes who shaped my life and how I saw the world. At that time the Soviet Union was a very real and present danger to the United States, and the four public figures most actively engaged in fighting the USSR were Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, John Paul II, and Howard Phillips.

Heroes of the 80s

My father would describe their actions and policies to me, and for three of them, he would do so with caveats. “The President issued a great statement to Gorbachev today,” he would explain, “but remember that the Republican Party is wrong about these four points.” Or, “Mrs. Thatcher is fighting for what is right, but her strategies should be modified this way.” And he communicated how deeply he appreciated the Pope’s fearless stance on Communism before clarifying why our family was not Roman Catholic.

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Thoughts on the VFX Crisis

If you’ve been on Facebook or Twitter lately, you’ve probably seen a number of users who have replaced their pictures with green backgrounds. These people, normally used to being invisible, are trying to give a little extra visibility to a crisis that isn’t getting much attention in the media. While almost every industry is being affected by today’s global recession, a disproportionate number of visual effects studios are shutting down even as their own films set box-office records at home and abroad.

90% of the background and 50% of the Avengers will be added in post.

This year, Bill Westenhofer accepted the Oscar for Best Visual Effects while his employer, Rhythm & Hues, was filing for bankruptcy. To add insult to injury, the Academy organizers cut his mic when he tried to mention that his team of award-winning effects artists were now unemployed. This was a painful snub, since on most of today’s films, visual effects artists put in the majority of the man-hours, represent the largest chunk of the crew, and often create the vast majority of what the audience actually sees on screen.

For example, 2012’s Disney’s Marvel’s Joss Whedon’s Avengers’ climactic battle took place in an entirely digital New York City, was fought against entirely digital alien invaders, and usually involved digital stuntmen protecting digital extras from digital explosions. For Life of Pi, most of Claudio Miranda’s Oscar-winning cinematography was actually shots of flat blue walls that were replaced with completely original renders from the Rhythm & Hues team.

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The Global Election

As the American election cycle comes to a close, I’m looking forward to being able to have conversations about things not related to the White House. In fact, I might even get around to talking to folks about the other offices that we’ve elected people to today.

But in all seriousness, I’ve found it very interesting to follow the progress of the discussion, both here and abroad. The American presidential election is the largest, most popular, and most globally scrutinized political contest on earth, and watching world opinion can be very revealing.

When I lived in New Zealand I had just come from working in American media, and I was amazed at well international television reports from the BBC and Deutch Welle covered some things and how inaccurately they portrayed others. Being away from home provided perspective our own news, and made it easier to compare cultural ideas.

Even after moving back, I’ve tended to follow international coverage of our elections, and there were a lot of international opinions that arose on a recent question: “If the current US presidential election candidates (Obama Vs. Romney) were running in your country who would you vote for and who do you think would win?


Of course, some statistics actually exist, and a recent Globescan poll of 21 countries resulted in a final tally of 50% voting for Obama, 9% for Romney, 31% various don’t knows and don’t cares, and an insightful 10% who didn’t believe that there was any difference between the two.

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Brave Part II: Story and Theme

This is the second part of my random thoughts on Pixar’s Brave. Please read Part 1 first; it talks more about the art and character of the film. This half will look a little deeper into the story.

Brave vs. Tangled
Story-wise, Brave is much more similar to Disney’s 2011 film Tangled, since the prevailing conflict of each film is a strong-willed princess daughter rebelling against a mean ol’ (step)mother’s rules while being personally conflicted about their relationship. Axe-wielding ruffians, magic, and big hair are tangentially involved in both films.

Rapunzel and Merida

There are some major differences, though. In Tangled, Rapunzel’s mother figure is a kidnapper, which means that the audience can overlook any disobedience. It’s a clever trick of the writers, but Rapunzel doesn’t know this, so she’s being genuinely defiant to someone who she thinks is loving and trustworthy. When she runs away from home a happy adventure ensues, wonderful things happen to her, and everybody’s life gets better (except for her stepmother’s life, which gets shorter). It’s kind of a problematic message for kids, when you think about it.

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